Boston — "It is a very strange sensation to see one's whole life in the space of 10 minutes. . . . It is at the same time melancholy, and also one says, 'Hmm . . . that's not bad . . . that one, perhaps. Yes.'" So says French film director Marcel Carne, who finds himself surrounded by his lifework in "les Salles Carne" (the Carne Rooms) in Boston's French Library. Just behind his head I can see a black-and-white still of two glamorous but grim people, one of whom is armed, and I realize that as I listen to the tales of this small, dapper director, who looks a little like Alfred Hitchcock, I am leaning my elbows on the script for his most beloved film, "Children of Paradise."
His jollity belies the fact that he is known for his work in "film noir" (literally "black film," movies that are dark in color as well as in mood) and especially for "Les Enfants du Paradis" ("Children of Paradise"), a tragic tale of romantic love in the French theater of the 19th century which he managed to make during the Nazi occupation of France.
After a 50-year career, he has ensconed his archives in the French Library's two brownstone houses in the Back Bay. The library, the largest private French library in the United States, is stocked with books, tapes, and films in French and serves as an oasis for Francophiles in New England, showing French films and giving dinners for French New Englanders like Marguerite Yourcenar and the Boston Ballet's Violette Verdy. And now there are three rooms full of stills from Carne's movies as well as glass cases with his medals and letters, not to mention his first film editing machine, an item so uncomplicated-looking it might be mistaken for a farm implement. It was on this machine, he racalled in a press conference, that his first film, a documentary, caught fire.
Which probably just encouraged the pugnacious metteur-en-scene,m whose motto, taken from Victor Hugo, is "Lutter c'est vivre," or "To fight is to live." The Nazi occupation, during which one of his actors was arrested and he worked secretly with a Jewish set designer and composer, himself risking arrest and internment in a concentration camp, was only part of the battle.
During the course of his 50-year career, he has also had to deal with adverse criticism at home and abroad. Most of his films were panned in the New York Times when they came out, only to be referred to several years later as "his great classic work," to which the reviewer would then compare his next work unfavorably. The New Wave film critics were not kind, either, he said, but "tore down everything that came before them." causing a generation gap that still exists between the pioneers of French cinema and the young filmmakers.
"Carne's reputation fell for about 10 years, from 1958 to 1968," says Edward Turk, a professor of French at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is writing a book on Carne's works. "The New Wave directors were reacting against the standards of quality Carne established. They felt it was too stylized," precluding the more quirkily personal, artistic vision that the New Wave filmmakers developed.
Now, Mr. Turk says, if one sees all of Carne's films (still difficult if you don't live near the French Library) you can see that technique served Carne's own unique aesthetic sense, which puts him "with the top French directors, Jean Renoir and Abel Gance [who made the silent classic "Napoleon," recently shown at the Radio City Music Hall in New York]."
Young filmmakers still feel, Carne complains, that "now that I am here, filmmaking can begin." He is distressed that they have abandoned the meticulous attention to detail and technique his generation prized, and feels that nowadays there are too many small, unambitious films made.
He marvels at the equipment available to filmmakers today -- some of which he has used, some of which he has seen used in a documentary made about him for French television. But he feels that with all the ease, French filmmakers have become satisfied with too little. They do not, he says, put the technology in the service of their artistic vision. He calls today's French cinema "filmes intimistes," intimate films, all too often consisting of "a man, a wife, and a lover."
The new movie film available frees the filmmaker from worrying about lighting , but, he says, "they film in a room like this, a man and a woman are talking, there's no decor, no atmosphere. They don't try to go any farther." The filmmakers call this "everyday realism," but to Carne it's "la realite brutal." He admits this may be more spontaneous, but insists that "art is interpreting reality, not just showing it."
Carne comes from the generation that invented French cinema. He values the school of hard knocks that old-fashioned moviemaking provided, and prizes his hard-won technique. He himself introduced the flashback into French films, and is proud that when the zoom lens came out he used it so subtly that the critics thought he hadn't discovered it yet. He has the greatest affection for "Juliette, ou la Clef des Songes," his least popular movie, partly because it was so unpopular. He agrees with Andre Gide, who said, "Art thrives in constraint but dies of liberty."
"I would never tell that to a producer," he adds, but he feels that some of his most creative moments came in getting around one sort of obstacle or other. No wonder, then, that "Children of Paradise" was voted by the French Academy of Cinema "the best film in the history of talking pictures in France." Although he was working with such great French actors as Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty, and Pierre Brasseur, and his usual partner, Jacques Prevert, wrote the script, making "Children of Paradise" was a fight from the start.
Not only was it hard to outfit a cast of thousands in 19th-century clothes during wartime, there were also the censors of the Vichy government (the ultimate critics, they blamed the fall of France on his somber prewar movie "Quai des Brumes") to contend with. Within such daunting constraints, he delivered what are considered his best movies, "Children of Paradise" and "The Devil's Envoys." As he says himself, "When you fight, you live doubly, with infinitely more ardor."
To avoid the censors, "Prevert and I took refuge in the past." "The Devil's Envoys" is a "medieval" fairy tale about two lovers who evade the devil's clutches. It was seen by many as an allegory about France's ability to withstand the diabolical Hitler.
To stay away from controversy in the next film, they chose to pay homage to the theater. it was Jean-Louis Barrault who suggested they make a movie about the silent mime and the garrulous actor, but the idea was not, according to Carne, "filmic enough." After doing research on the Boulevard du Crime, the notorious 19th-century Paris street between the Place de la Republique and the Place de la Bastille which was full of theaters, street life, and thievery, he handed over a heap of documents and books to Prevert and said, "Jacques, here is our movie."
They began shooting in Nice. They built the biggest sets that had ever been seen in French cinema, re-creating the entire Boulevard du Crime, and also made a group of interior sets in case of bad weather. People began to say at once that "Carne is crazy," he recalls, which cheered him up, since they had been saying that all along. Then, the Allies landed in Sicily, and the Vichy government got anxious and sent them all back to Paris. They stashed the interior sets -- also immense -- in various Paris studios and shot the interior scenes, until the Gestapo blacklisted their producer, who had some Jewish blood. After a three-month hiatus, the French film company Pathe agreed to take over. They returned to Nice, only to discover that the exterior sets had been blown down in a hurricane and that the Italians, who now occupied the city, wouldn't allow them to shoot night scenes because of the blackout.
They rebuilt the sets, but then there was more trouble with the Gestapo.
The Gestapo tended to drop by the set when Carne chose the day's extras. They would put pressure on him to hire union actors who were sympathetic to the Vichy government. He would use various ruses to avoid this if he could, claiming he wanted a certain type of face, a certain build, or something else not represented in the union membership. Still the shooting continued.
During the press conference, one journalist asked if it was worth it, even if this was the best French film, to make a movie where collaborators took part, and someone was handed over to the Gestapo. Carne said that this was a grave accusation and that the Gestapo had tricked him into handing over the actor by saying his wife was very ill. "But why continue?" the journalist asked.
Carne, speaking fast, soft, but angry French, his Legion of Honor rosette winking on his huffing chest, replied that he felt it was more patriotic to stay in France and shoot a movie, providing jobs for people in the film industry. He did it, he said, to prove that though France had been conquered militarily, its spirit was still alive.
The fight paid off. They knew it was the most ambitious and richest movie being made during the occupation, but they didn't know how popular it would be. It opened two weeks before the Armistice and ran for 45 weeks in Paris.It still has a cult following, speaking eloquently to postwar college audiences about the importance of art, beauty, and love.
The ending, like the endings of many Carne films, is sad. However, he claims , he is not a pessimist. "I have been reproached for pessimmism," he said to an audience at harvard who had come to see a selection of film clips, "but i only survived having hope. My films are called somber. That is not correct. There is at least one moment of happiness in each one."
Of his reputation in the press, he says, "My films which were apparent flops when they came out, 30 years later are considered classics. They have to be viewed from a distance." "Children of Paradise," seen from a distance of 26 years and another culture, is an astonishing movie. Without thinking about the circumstances it came out of, one is struck by the style of Barrault's miming, the beauty of the costumes, and the artful way the movie was filmed and paced, as if someone with all the time -- and power -- in the world had lovingly placed each actor and each episode at its most flattering angle.
It must have seemed just as exotic in the difficult time right after the war as it does now. All the gorgeous flounced dresses, elegant top hats, and the luxurious vistas the sets spread out must have looked particularly foreign to the grim, impoverished Paris of 1945. Audiences were eager to enter into a whole world of characters for whom their art is the essential and ennobling force in their lives. It's hard to imagine such concerns coming to mind in wartime. On the other hand, here is evidence that they did come to several minds, and were expressed, not only with style, but rather alluringly.